A couple of days ago, ESPN.com launched their latest redesign; an effort many months in the making and much anticipated in the industry. I’ve been playing with the new site for a month or so now and have some positive and negative opinions to express, both as a sports fan and as one of the (drunk) driving forces behind some past ESPN.com redesigns.
First the standard caveat: designing a major media site is not as easy as it may appear. It is not like designing a blog and not like designing a standard “web presence” for a company. There are hundreds of internal stakeholders to answer to, millions of daily users to please, and a ton of legacy and third-party code that is often outside your control. Anyone who tries to knock down the virtues of a major media site redesign based on how far it falls short of perfection is making the wrong comparison. The most important benchmark to grade is simply the amount of improvement (or worsening) from the last iteration of the site. Secondarily, comparison against competitors is also very important.
First things first, there’s a lot to like about the redesign:
In my five years at ESPN, there was always a lot of push and pull between design cleanliness and information density. On the design side, we always fought for an economy of elements on the page. Big striking headlines, well placed lead-ins, content modules here and there, but nothing to overload the screen. On the editorial and business side, there was always a push for more video, more features, and just generally more content all over the place. The ideal philosophy is of course somewhere in the middle, but over the last few years, I feel like ESPN had gone a bit too far in the “Times Square Billboard” direction, with too much visual distraction (especially in the form of autoplay video).
The new redesign gracefully chisels away a lot of the visual clutter and presents a calmer, gentler ESPN for your perusing pleasure. Gone is the autoplay video and other visual cruft that had built up over the years.
Note: When I refer to “visual cruft”, this is a phenomenon that happens to every content site over time. Essentially, you redesign and everything’s perfect, and then “plaque” kind of builds up over time in the form of code and design elements that are inserted to meet editorial or business needs. Each redesign is an opportunity to chisel off the plaque and start anew.
Don’t even bother trying to run the ESPN front page through the stupid W3C validator because that’s a lousy way to judge code quality. The tomato-throwers among us will of course do this immediately and point to the hundreds of validation errors as evidence of incompetence. The more seasoned among us know that 500 ampersand-related errors are meaningless in the grand scheme of things and we wish the validator could be configured to selectively mute certain types of benign errors.
The HTML for the front page is a svelte 22.8k gzipped (73.4k unzipped) and the code is pretty well written. All CSS for layout — natch — and decently structured HTML.
I will not comment on accessibility because I am not an accessibility expert. I’ve long railed against judging a site’s true accessibility by looking for alt text and well structured code, as I simply don’t believe those elements — on their face — make a site accessible or not. A site is accessible if observed user behavior suggests that disabled people can use the site with reasonable ease. If you don’t know how disabled people actually use your site, you have no idea if it’s actually accessible. Period. You may have followed best practices to improve its accessibility, but you just don’t know if it passes the test unless you test.
That said, I have no idea how accessible the new ESPN.com is in the real world. I imagine it’s ok, but certainly not perfect.
I don’t have a whole lot of objective things to say about the new story pages, but they look cleaner than the previous incarnation. Very readable, very uncluttered, and good video integration where appropriate.
ESPN moved to top navigation a few years ago and they’ve never looked back. I’ve long preached the benefits of putting your main navigation across the top of the screen and ESPN has fine-tuned their implementation with this release. Good rollovers, good information architecture, and just all-around snappy. I’d like to see msnbc.com move to top navigation with their next redesign.
As mentioned above, gone is the awful autoplay video. In its place is a video tab which is a lot more polite to users. I don’t think many users will click on the video tab (because in general, no one clicks on tabs), but I do think when ESPN has great video, they’ll probably flip to “video mode” automatically… and I’m totally cool with that, as long as it doesn’t autoplay.
But it’s not all roses with the redesign. I do have some issues with it:
By far the worst thing about the redesign is the ghettoization of the below-the-fold area on the home page. It’s tragically uninteresting. When I was working on the 2003 redesign, I remember John Skipper (rightfully) making a big deal about how important the below-the-fold area of the front page was and how we needed to make better use of it. The last redesign had a nice Flash feature slideshow thing going on and that is now gone, in favor of the gigantic heads of ESPN columnists. I love ESPN columnists, but their headshots add absolutely nothing to their stories. It’s a huge waste of space and it’s subconsciously a very unattractive area to scroll to.
Because of this, the new ESPN frontpage is now more of a “glance and go” site for me now. I don’t want to scroll because I have no confidence that there is anything worth scrolling to. Compare that to, for instance, the msnbc.com frontpage, where there are a ton of things to keep you interested all the way to the bottom of the page. I actually think msnbc.com is among the best in the industry at this.
One thing ESPN did to encourage people to scroll is put the main headline in the bottom area of the main marquee. Sorry, my screen’s big enough to still see it anyway. Not going to scroll.
Unless your site caters to females, it’s always risky to tint your reds. Even the slightest tinge of pink on a site like ESPN can ruin the whole look. Generally ESPN has gone with shades of red (red plus black) or maintained very clear boundaries between reds and whites. With this redesign, there is a pretty noticeable gradient from red to light gray, and while it’s clear they limited the pink zone by using a steep gradient, it’s still noticeable.
I don’t see a whole lot of customization options besides the “My Headlines” tab. It’s very hard to do customization well, but this strikes me as not much of an effort at all.
All in all, I think it’s a nice redesign. Not one that knocks you on your ass and wows you to your core, but tasteful nonetheless. I found myself visiting competitive sites like Yahoo Sports, CNNSI, Sportsline, and Fox Sports to compare this against their latest versions, and after thinking about it, I still think ESPN’s design compares favorably to all comers.
Either Roger Clemens is lying about his alleged steroid abuse, or he’s just a really bad truth teller.
One of my favorite blog posts to write was one I published about Jose Canseco’s 60 Minutes interview two years ago, asking readers to try and analyze his microexpressions as he told Mike Wallace how many players in Major League Baseball used steroids. The claim — at the time — was largely dismissed by the public, and I’ll admit to not believing a word Canseco said, based on his mannerisms alone. It seemed like an easy call. It turned out not to be.
Thinking back on that Canseco interview makes watching this whole Roger Clemens drama all the more mystifying to try and figure out. Whether it’s Clemens’ own 60 Minutes interview two nights ago or this incredible press conference video below, it’s just so hard to tell how much of anything is the truth:
One the one hand, he shows telltale signs of lying:
But on the other hand:
It should be fascinating, albeit somewhat pathetic and depressing, to see how this whole thing pans out. Above anything else, I suppose, it’s nice to hear the guy getting out there and talking instead of hiding behind lawyers. That alone suggests we owe him the benefit of some more investigation before thinking our opinions are even halfway correct or mildly educated, for that matter.
Anyone who watched the Floyd Mayweather/Oscar De La Hoya fight last night was probably a bit disappointed at how the fight turned out. Both boxers fought well and it certainly wasn’t a hugging match like some of the bad heavyweight fights we’ve seen recently, but at no point was either fighter in danger of even losing their balance, let alone getting knocked out. For as many times as Mayweather spoke of “knocking the shit out of Oscar” before the fight, he didn’t seem to even bruise the man.
But the victory went to Mayweather anyway, mainly for his surprisingly defensive strategy of not throwing too many punches but landing a decent percentage of them.
There were a lot of interesting things about this fight though, aside from the lackluster action inside the ring:
Firstly, HBO did a spectacular job of hyping this matchup. I and almost everyone I watched it with were only excited for the matchup because we’d watched the well-produced “De La Hoya/Mayweather 24/7” series beforehand. The 4-part series was an inside look at the fighters’ lives and training regimens leading up to the fight. Filmed in high definition and brilliantly edited in a short amount of time, the series really made you love Oscar and hate Floyd. The end result was the richest fight in boxing history and one that was viewed by thousands more “casual boxing fans” than would have normally watched. More fights should receive this treatment.
The lead up to the fight also reminded me a lot of one of my favorite reality shows, The Contender. The Contender captures the drama of the boxing lifestyle and the actual boxing is often secondary. After last season was over, I spoke with someone high up at ESPN and made a suggestion I hope they take: show each episode on ESPN and ESPN2 simultaneously. Make the ESPN2 episode a half hour longer, showing the entire unedited boxing match at the end instead of the made-for-TV cutjob that’s on the flagship station. We’ll see if that happens.
Another interesting thing about this fight is that no boxer seemed to be injured at all the entire time. The standard boxing 10-point-must system scores rounds based on “injury” with most rounds ending 10-9 in favor of one fighter. I wonder if a better system would be to score all rounds 10-10 unless there was actually a legitimate pounding that took place. Under this system, almost every round in last night’s fight would have been 10-10 (possibly all of them) and the end result might have been a draw. The more important consequence of this system is that boxers would be more aggressive though. After the fight, De La Hoya said something very accurate. He said “If I didn’t bring the fight to him, there would have been no fight.” He was right. De La Hoya was the only one pushing the action, but unfortunately, he was not rewarded for it.
I also thought it was interesting (and bizarre) that Floyd Mayweather’s dad openly admitted that he thought De La Hoya won the fight afterwards in his interview with Larry Merchant. I know Floyd Sr. and Floyd Jr. are a bit estranged, but man, that is tight. If I were Jr., I’d be pissed.
The last interesting thing about the night for me was that several people I watched the fight with brought up the famous Tyson/Holyfield ear-biting match in 1997, and for a lot of us, that was the very last fight we ever paid to watch. If over 50% of us boycotted PPV boxing after that, I wonder how much money the industry has lost because of that incident. That was 10 years ago and the sport just doesn’t seem to have recovered from it. I think the industry should look long and hard at what dramas like The Contender and De La Hoya/Mayweather 24/7 can do for the sport. They’re certainly more effective than anything else that’s been tried.
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